Trying to pare down several decades worth of treasures from Hollywood’s golden age to a list of essential titles was for me virtually impossible. The “studio system era,” lasting from roughly the dawn of the talkie in the late 1920s through the dissolution of the monopoly the studios held on the industry in the late 1950s, was characterized by an assembly line approach to film production that, perhaps paradoxically, proved particularly fertile for the notion of the director as auteur. This diverse and prolific period, which I study the way some art historians study the Renaissance, is just too rich. Nevertheless, I tried! Making my job easier was the decision to “supersize” the list to include 26 titles, which I’ll be splitting across two posts. Also helping out were a few self-imposed rules, such as including only one film per director and only including films produced by the major studios (thus leaving out Poverty Row gems like Edgar Ulmer’s Detour). I also tried to be well-rounded in terms of covering all of the major genres and stars of the era. While it simply wasn’t possible to make the list comprehensive, anyone wanting to become well-versed in classic Hollywood cinema should eventually check out all of the titles below.
The list is in chronological order. Part one encompasses the years 1930 – 1947:
Morocco (von Sternberg, Paramount, 1930)
Hot on the heels of their German masterpiece The Blue Angel, director Joseph von Sternberg and star Marlene Dietrich re-teamed for this luminously photgraphed fantasy, the latter’s first Hollywood film. The story concerns the doomed love affair between a cabaret singer (Dietrich) and a good-for-nothing French Legionnaire (Gary Cooper, impossibly young and even a little sexy) in the exotic title country. Dietrich memorably performs in drag and even kisses a female audience member on the lips in this outrageously entertaining pre-Code melodrama.
Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch, Paramount, 1932)
Another German emigre, director Ernst Lubitsch, inaugurated his mature period with this elegant, witty and sophisticated comedy about a love triangle between a master thief (Herbert Marshall), a female pickpocket (Miriam Hopkins) and the wealthy businesswoman they are both trying to fleece (Kay Francis). Not only a hilarious film but a very beautiful one; if you want to know what the famous “Lubitsch touch” is all about, this is the best place to start.
Modern Times (Chaplin, United Artists, 1936)
Charlie Chaplin’s last film to feature his “Little Tramp” persona and his first sound film is also, fittingly, the first to pull him out of the Victorian era and into an industrial, recognizably twentieth century landscape. Modern Times masterfully blends comedy and pathos in a series of vignettes as the Tramp and a “gamin” (Paulette Godard, Chaplin’s best leading lady) attempt to find jobs and work toward a brighter future while simultaneously avoiding the cops and a juvenile officer. This contains some of Chaplin’s best known slapstick gags including the opening assembly line scene, in which the Tramp is run through the cogs of a giant machine; on Criterion’s blu-ray edition, the Dardennes brothers note that this image uncannily resembles film running through a projector.
Make Way for Tomorrow (McCarey, Paramount, 1937)
The Pere Goriot of the cinema: unable to meet their mortgage payments, a retired married couple (Beulah Bondi and Broadway actor Victor Moore) lose possession of their house and are forced to split up and be shuttled between the homes of their ungrateful grown children. A fascinating look at Depression era America in the days before social security, Leo McCarey’s subtle and perceptive film was also clear influence on Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Also a strong candidate for the title of saddest movie ever made.
Bringing Up Baby (Hawks, RKO, 1938)
Cary Grant is an uptight, work-obsessed paleontologist who finds his world turned upside down by zany, free-spirited socialite Katherine Hepburn. After meeting cute on a golf course, a series of mishaps ensues culminating with the pair escorting a leopard to her aunt’s house in the country. Howard Hawks’ masterpiece is the quintessential screwball comedy – a battle of the sexes love story that is fast-paced, ridiculous and very, very funny.
The Roaring Twenties (Walsh, Warner Brothers, 1939)
The conventions of the gangster movie crystallized in the early ’30s with the release of The Public Enemy, Little Caesar and Scarface. By decade’s end, director Raoul Walsh and star James Cagney, both specialists in the genre, delivered the definitive gangster movie with this epic and nostalgic look back at the rise and fall of the bootlegging industry. The way the narrative of The Roaring Twenties continually opens up to situate its events within a wider social context (from the first World War to the stock market crash of ’29) would exert a major influence on Martin Scorsese. And, as the heavy, Humphrey Bogart is a match for Cagney made in tough guy movie heaven.
Citizen Kane (Welles, RKO, 1941)
Orson Welles’ legendary film about the life of a newspaper tycoon loosely based on William Randolph Hearst was completed when its writer/director/star was just 26 years old. Revolutionary for both its deep focus cinematography and its intricate flashback structure, Citizen Kane also astonishes by capturing wide swaths of human experience in its two hour running time. In case you’ve been living under a rock, this is the film most often cited by critics and historians as the greatest of all time.
Casablanca (Curtiz, Warner Brothers, 1942)
You must remember this: Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine, an American nightclub owner living in Morocco, whose cynical exterior conceals a sentimental heart; Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund, the Norwegian woman he loved and lost in pre-War France, only to find again under less-than-ideal circumstances in the Vichy-controlled title city. Out of all the gin joints in the world, why did she have to walk into his?! Thank God for the sake of movie lovers that she did. They’ll always have Paris – and we’ll always have Casablanca.
The Seventh Victim (Robson, RKO, 1943)
Although made on a small budget and directed by Mark Robson (who is not generally considered an auteur), The Seventh Victim is essential to include as a representation of the cycle of poetic horror films churned out by RKO’s genius auteur-producer Val Lewton. The plot concerns a young woman’s investigation into her sister’s disappearance, which leads to the discovery of . . . a cult of devil worshipers in Greenwich Village! Creepy, atmospheric, delightfully ambiguous and way ahead of its time.
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Sturges, Paramount, 1944)
Writer/director Preston Sturges was to the American cinema what Mark Twain was to American literature: the greatest satirist of our mores and all that we hold sacred. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is his most subversive work, a cinematic powder-keg that does impressive narrative somersaults in order to illustrate the predicament of Trudy Kockenlocker (a name that makes me laugh just to type it). Trudy (Betty Hutton) is a small town girl who, in one long drunken night, meets, marries and gets knocked up by a soldier before he heads off to war – but wakes up the next morning unable to remember anything about him. Hilarity ensues when she turns to 4F Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), her longtime admirer-from-afar, to help prevent the inevitable local scandal.
The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, MGM, 1946)
The best film ever made about returning soldiers being re-assimilated into American society, The Best Years of Our Lives avoids mawkishness while packing a heavyweight dramatic punch. Lead acting chores fall on Fredric March, Dana Andrews and the unforgettable non-actor Harold Russell, whose characters (representing the Army, Air Force and Navy, respectively) are ecstatic to be demobilized at the conclusion of WWII, only to have to navigate their own emotional minefields back home. Bring a box of kleenex.
It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, RKO, 1946)
Forget about the overplayed highlights and endlessly parodied moments, It’s a Wonderful Life is a much darker film than its reputation would suggest; it is essentially the story of a man whose life’s ambitions have been thwarted at every turn, rendering him unable to realize his dreams and leading him to contemplate suicide on Christmas Eve. And while it’s true that Bedford Falls would have been worse off without George Bailey, have you considered that the rest of the world might have been better off had the enterprising young man left home like he wanted to? If it is ultimately an uplifting film that’s because, as Bob Dylan once sang, the darkest hour is just before the dawn. This is the film director Frank Capra and star Jimmy Stewart were born to make.
Out of the Past (Tourneur, RKO, 1947)
The ultimate film noir – a cynical, fatalistic crime movie with a gorgeous, shadowy visual style in which writer Daniel Mainwaring and director Jacques Tourneur create a dichotomy between: cool detective (Robert Mitchum) and hotheaded gangster (Kirk Douglas), good girl (Virginia Huston) and femme fatale (Jane Greer), idyllic small town and corrupt big city, day and night. Remade officially as Against All Odds and unofficially as A History of Violence.
To be continued . . .